Rebuild under way as Blue Jays begin youth movement
TORONTO (AP) — After two straight seasons of decline in Toronto, it's time to tear down and start over.
The Blue Jays had hoped to coax one more competitive push out of the core players remaining from 2015 and 2016, when Toronto made back-to-back appearances in the AL Championship Series. Things looked promising after a 16-12 start, but it didn't last.
A 9-19 mark in May, and injuries to key players including infielder Josh Donaldson and right-handers Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, combined to sink Toronto's season. The Blue Jays finished 73-89, three wins fewer than the year before, and announced manager John Gibbons won't be back next year.
Once out of contention, Toronto traded eight players from its opening day roster, including Donaldson, left-hander J.A. Happ and closer Roberto Osuna.
In early September, team president Mark Shapiro acknowledged "there is no longer any gray about where we are" regarding a rebuild. A return to playoff contention, he said, is two to four years away.
"The only way to find out about who a player is at the major league level is to commit that opportunity and commit to those players," Shapiro said. "We're embarking on that process now."
Toronto's youth movement will take a big step forward when top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives, likely before the end of next April. The son of the newly enshrined Hall of Famer hit .402 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs in 61 games at Double-A, and added six more homers in 30 games at Triple-A. Guerrero Jr. is still refining his play at third base, but his bat should help the Blue Jays as soon as he joins the lineup.
Other young players to watch in 2019 include infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., outfielder Billy McKinney and left-hander Ryan Borucki, all of whom made an impact in their Toronto debuts this season.
"I like where we're going," said outfielder Randal Grichuk, who hit a career-high 25 homers. "We've got a lot of young guys. We've got guys in the minor league system that can impact us up here in the future. We've got a lot of guys up here that performed well this year but will perform even better."
Before their final home game, the Blue Jays said Gibbons won't be back to serve out the final year of his contract. Gibbons went 793-789 in two stints with Toronto. "I appreciate all the guys hanging in there," Gibbons said. "It's been a tough season."
Gibbons' departure gives Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins their first opportunity to hire a Blue Jays manager. A potential in-house candidate is 38-year-old John Schneider, a former catcher whose Double-A New Hampshire team won the 2018 Eastern League title.
With four holdovers from their 2016 playoff team in the rotation, starting pitching was supposed to be Toronto's strength. Instead, Blue Jays starters posted a 5.14 ERA, third worst in the majors. Happ was an All-Star before being traded to the Yankees, but Stroman struggled with shoulder and blister issues and Sanchez missed more than two months because of an oddball injury suffered when his finger got stuck in a suitcase. Righty Marco Estrada was mostly healthy, but went 7-14 with a 5.64 ERA.
In his final season before free agency, the Blue Jays hoped Donaldson would help them push for the playoffs or deliver a decent return at the trade deadline. Neither option panned out. The 2015 AL MVP missed time early because of a sore shoulder, then went down again with a calf injury. Donaldson was rehabbing in late August when he was traded to Cleveland for a player to be named.
THE BIG MONEY
Toronto may be going young, but it still has a pair of pricey veterans. Catcher Russell Martin has one year at $20 million left before his five-year deal expires. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is owed $20 million in 2019 and $14 million in 2020. There's a $15 million club option for 2021 with a $4 million buyout. Tulowitzki didn't play at all this season after surgery in April to repair bone spurs on both heels. He expects to be ready by spring training. The five-time All-Star has missed at least 30 games in seven straight seasons.
THE SONS ALSO RISE
Besides Guerrero and Gurriel, other 'Juniors' in the Blue Jays system include Cavan Biggio, son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, and slugger Bo Bichette, son of four-time All-Star Dante Bichette.